'Call it off, please': video shows how operation against El Chapo's son fell apart

Government report on failed operation shows soldiers pushing Ovidio Guzmán López to tell brothers to call off rescue attempt

Mexican soldiers who detained a son of the jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán forced him to telephone his brothers in a desperate effort to call off a rescue attempt by cartel gunmen.

Instead, the call triggered a fresh onslaught in the northern city of Culiacán as the Sinaloa cartel mounted a terrifying show of strength that eventually prompted the outnumbered soldiers to free the capo’s son in exchange for their lives.

The video of Ovidio Guzmán López’s call was released on Wednesday as part of an extraordinary government report revealing just how badly things went wrong in the failed operation on 17 October.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisted the report would rebut the arguments of critics who say the disastrous operation has made his government appear weak and have called on him to reconsider his commitment to a non-confrontational “hugs not bullets” security strategy.

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops on to the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counterproductive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count skyrocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously, Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile successes – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

'Hugs not bullets'

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo, as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong national guard. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders a day.

“We want everything to be known. That’s how we demonstrate the responsibility of the actions taken in a complex, difficult and very serious situation,” the president said. “It’s how we demonstrate that the most important thing is to protect citizens, to protect life.”

The defence secretary, Luis Cresencio Sandoval, described Ovidio, 29, as “one of the main traffickers” of methamphetamines and fentanyl into the United States, and said the aborted operation stemmed from an arrest warrant with a view to extradition issued on 13 September.

The general said a special unit within the security forces was dispatched to Culiacán on 9 October with an arrest plan that involved the establishment of an inner and outer security cordon as soon as intelligence confirmed that Ovidio was at a house in the centre of the city.

Things began to fall apart, however, when attacks by gunmen prevented soldiers and members of the national guard from reaching their positions on the outer cordon.

Pressure increased, he said, when gunmen attacked blocks of flats occupied by the families of military personnel and took an officer and nine soldiers hostage.

Critics have argued that the authorities should have sent a larger force for the operation.

But Sandoval emphasized the gunmens’ military-grade arsenal, which included armoured vehicles, .50-calibre machine guns, and rocket launchers that hit a helicopter, and argued that to defeat the cartel force, the army would have had to use even superior firepower – which would have inevitably put civilians at risk.

The government says eight people died during the operation, though local media has put the death toll at 13.

As fighting raged across the city, it appears that the younger Guzmán never left the house were he was detained.

Video shot at the property shows him passing a handgun to an associate before emerging into a garage, fiddling with a black baseball cap before soldiers back him against the wall.

With intense gunfire in the background, a soldier shouts at him: “Tell your people to stop this!” after which he is seen holding a mobile phone.

“Call it off, please, I’ve given myself up,” he is heard saying. “Now stop it, calm down, there’s nothing to be done … Tell them to pull back, I don’t want this,” he continues.

But the attacks continued and four hours after the operation began, officials in Mexico City ordered security forces to withdraw.

Initial reaction to the report included some shock, and even admiration, that the government had been so open about such a disastrous event.

But many questions remain unanswered, including who gave the go-ahead for such a badly planned operation and how the cartel obtained the intelligence to mount an effective rescue operation so quickly.

López Obrador has promised to answer outstanding doubts at a press conference on Thursday.


Jo Tuckman in Mexico City

The GuardianTramp

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